Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Margaret Buffie

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Ten Questions with Margaret Buffie

Margaret Buffie's new book Winter Shadows (Tundra Books) is a "splendid, engaging novel that offers readers a rich combination of fine history, suspenseful shifts in time, and unforgettable characters". Margaret talks to Open Book about her research process, what she's currently reading, and the best reaction she's ever gotten from a reader.

OBT:

Tell us about your book, Winter Shadows.

Margaret Buffie:

Sixteen year old Cass lives in an old stone house on the Red River in the small community of St. Cuthbert’s, Manitoba, with her father, her uptight stepmother Jean, and Jean’s annoying daughter, Daisy. An unhappy and tense first Christmas together looms. Cass, still grieving for her mother, becomes aware that someone else is also living in the house — a young woman named Beatrice Alexander whose Scottish Métis father built Old Maples in the parish over a hundred and seventy years earlier when he retired from the Hudson’s Bay Company.

In 1856, Beatrice has just returned from school in Upper Canada to find her injured father has married the jealous and spiteful widow Ivy Comper. As her father’s new wife drives a wedge between her and her Papa, Beatrice can only be sure of the comfort of her beloved Cree grandmother, relegated to a room upstairs.

Like Cass, who is wondering if there is any hope for a happy future in Old Maples, dark winter shadows hover around Beatrice. She feels trapped by her circumstances and the growing prejudice against those of mixed Cree and Scottish blood like herself. As she explores her visions and her unfulfilled life through her journal, she is suddenly confronted by a fateful choice: Should she settle for a man she doesn’t love, or remain an unhappy spinster? Is there no hope for happiness for her in the village of St. Cuthbert’s?

When Cass finds Beatrice’s journal, the two young women begin a journey of change and healing in their lives.


OBT:

What was your first publication?

MB:

My first book was Who is Frances Rain?.


OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

MB:

I have what I consider the ideal writing environment which I created in our 100 year old house in Winnipeg. It is the smallest room on the second floor facing the huge elms that line our street. I have a L-shaped desk that allows me watch our Manitoba seasons as they pass by. I have my music when I want to create a mood in which to write, I have quiet when I need to edit, and I have an electric kettle and a big teapot to help me through it all. Perfect!


OBT:

Tell us about your research process?

MB:

In the case of Winter Shadows, I immersed myself in every book about the community of “English Métis” in Rupertsland (Manitoba), most of whom were of Scottish descent. I especially researched the unique community of St. Andrews on the Red River. This area, about twenty miles from Winnipeg, was originally used by native tribes, but in the early 18th C. a farming community was built there by the Hudson’s Bay Company for a group of retiring Scottish Métis servants, factors, and officers of HBC - shortly after the HBC and the North West Fur company joined forces in 1829. Its control was then turned over to the Christian Missionary Society who wanted to “help” native people and Métis become “English” in every way and to deny their aboriginal culture.


OBT:

This story takes place on two different timelines. Was it difficult maintaining both simultaneously?

MB:

It was. But I carefully mapped out the storyline to make sure the transitions were as smooth as I could make them. At times, it felt like I was juggling not only two or three balls at a time, but a few spinning plates as well!


OBT:

How do you decide what subject matter to write about?

MB:

Good question. In this case, I’ve always been interested in St. Andrews. We used to go there for picnics along the Red River near the locks at Lockport. I was fascinated when I discovered that one of the most beautiful stone houses belonged to Captain Kennedy, a fascinating Scottish Métis in St. Andrew’s, and another stone house, not far down River Road, had been a school for girls at an even earlier time. It was only later that I found out that most of the students were the daughters of country marriages between officers of the HBC and their native wives.

My ideas always seem to come from an intense interest in something I’ve heard, seen or read about. I usually begin to explore each new idea just for my own interest, and if it continues to challenge me, I write about it. In the case of Who is Frances Rain?, the idea for a story came from finding a pair of wire-rimmed glasses buried on an island near my parents’ summer cabin. My intense love for the lake and this intriguing find led me to write about the lonely characters of modern day Lizzie McGill and female prospector Frances Rain – two young women also living many years apart in time.


OBT:

What are you currently reading?

MB:

I have just finished reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett which I loved, and I am just starting Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass.


OBT:

What’s the best reaction you’ve had from a reader?

MB:

I would say one of the most moving reactions I’ve had came from two separate letters from young women who had just read Angel’s Turn Their Backs. Each told me how much the book had helped them. Like my character, Addy, both young writers suffered from panic anxiety disorder and agoraphobia. They each told me, very movingly, how the book helped them understand their illness, how it made them feel less alone and how it gave them hope. I was stunned by this. And so grateful that they had written to me. As someone who has lived with both issues on many levels in my family, it made me realize that a writers’ work can actually touch people.


OBT:

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

MB:

I always say the same thing. If you want to be a writer, you must be a reader first and foremost. Read, read, read. Then begin to write what you love to read. But first, lift your head up and LOOK at your own world with new eyes. Listen to everything you hear. Try to describe to yourself what you are seeing, tasting, feeling and hearing. I think every writer should take visual art lessons as well. As an artist and former art teacher, I feel very strongly that the visual arts should be as important in schooling as math and science (and literature and music!). Taking a pencil or paintbrush in hand and drawing or painting the world around you, sensitizes you to your own world in such an intimate and astonishing way that it can only be discovered through a real attempt to truly recreate what you are seeing. So many of us look around, but so few of us actually SEE. Seeing makes you a better writer because it allows you to use that inner screen inside your head – so that you can watch events and characters actually come to life. And that’s my little soapbox statement for today!


OBT:

Do you have any upcoming projects in mind?

MB:

I do, but they are still percolating, and aren’t quite ready to talk about yet!


MARGARET BUFFIE was born and grew up in the west end of Winnipeg. She began writing in 1985 and her first novel, Who is Frances Rain? quickly became a best seller. Since then, she has published nine more books for young adults. Her books have been published in the United States, Norway, Italy, Sweden, Australia, Great Britain, Germany, and China. Margaret Buffie has been honored with several awards including the prestigious Vicky Metcalf Award for Body of Work.

For more information, please visit Margaret Buffie’s website, buffie.netfirms.com

For more information about Winter Shadows please visit Margaret Buffie's website, or the Tundra website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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